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October 22, 2014

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An unspoken energy summit goal: Reelect Reid

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Steve Marcus

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, right, greets former President Bill Clinton onstage. Clinton says getting banks onboard is key to clean energy investment.

Clean Energy Summit

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton gives a speech at the National Clean Energy Summit 2.0 at UNLV on Monday. Launch slideshow »

Clinton visits UNLV

Clinton visits UNLV, part 2

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There was a lot of high-minded, and no doubt important, policy discussion at the Clean Energy Summit at UNLV.

But make no mistake, Monday’s event was about politics.

It was about driving energy legislation in the Senate this fall, and more narrowly, about the 2010 reelection of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who faces sagging poll numbers here at home.

On display was a Democratic Party with a mastery of political organization and slickly produced theater that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. There were famous names, smooth sound bites and an appreciative, well-behaved crowd.

The conference was put on by the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank that didn’t exist until 2003. Founded by Clinton White House Chief of Staff John Podesta, CAP, as it is known, has become indispensable to the Democrats, much as the Heritage Foundation was at one time for Republicans — providing ideas and attacks, intellectual heft and policy talent.

The event was swarming with busy BlackBerry hands, the young Democratic operatives who are now the party’s key players.

Then there were the big names who as recently as 2004 were more or less on the sidelines: former Vice President Al Gore and former President Bill Clinton.

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Ret. Gen. Wesley Clark, center, co-chairman of Growth Energy, speaks during a roundtable discussion at the National Clean Energy Summit 2.0 at UNLV on Monday. Rose McKinney James of the Energy Foundation Board listens at left.

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Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa speaks during a roundtable at the National Clean Energy Summit 2.0 in Las Vegas. Listening at left is Nevada State Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford.

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Energy executive T. Boone Pickens, left, speaks during a roundtable discussion at the National Clean Energy Summit 2.0 at UNLV Monday. At right is Van Jones, a special adviser for the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

That was just the top billing, however. With the Obama administration never missing a chance to win a local news cycle, the White House sent Energy Secretary Steven Chu and Labor Secretary Hilda Solis to provide early sound bites. Retired Gen. Wesley Clark and Los Angeles’ first Hispanic mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, were also on hand.

Not surprisingly, the messages — coordinated and poll-tested — felt comforting: The United States must deal with global warming, and we can do it by breaking our dependence on foreign oil, becoming more energy efficient and creating jobs.

Summit organizers also scored a return appearance by conservative oil baron T. Boone Pickens, who advocates for wind power. He reiterated a plan to use natural gas for transit; a well-timed CAP report released Monday proposed the same. That angle would help the summit appear to be centrist because natural gas is neither renewable nor carbon-free, though it is cleaner than coal.

Sen. Marie Cantwell, D-Wash., welcomed Pickens this way: “When you have an oil man from Texas say you have to get off oil, I don’t think you need any bigger mission statement than that ... If America doesn’t understand that, I don’t know how you can say it ... and by the way, we delight in your accent, it adds a little pizazz.”

Her message: If a die-hard oil man has accepted the need for a new energy future, it must make sense.

The conference focused on the need for energy legislation this fall to reduce carbon emissions and move away from foreign oil. As Gore put it: “The key challenge is going to be this fall in the United States Senate, and everybody here can make a difference.”

But there was also a thinly veiled subtext: Reelect Harry Reid.

Speaker after speaker sung Reid’s praises and nearly all of them described him as “my good friend.”

Then there were Pickens’ remarks to Reid. “I never had anybody in Washington respond to me like you did. It was two Americans talking about something that has nothing to do with politics,” he said, belying the political reality of Monday’s event.

The event may have been transparently political, but that’s no comfort to Republicans left without much of a voice on energy, just as Democrats long struggled to find credible voices on national security.

Oil prices climbed significantly while two Republican oil men occupied the executive branch for eight years. At the moment, Republicans don’t have a policy apparatus equivalent to the Center for American Progress that would help craft new energy ideas, or major figures like Gore and Clinton to drive it home. Perhaps that’s why as support for Obama and the Democrats has waned since his inauguration, there hasn’t been much attendant uptick for Republicans.

They can take hope, however, in a newly energized base. Though outnumbered by progressive demonstrators holding clean energy signs, conservative activists withstood the heat Monday at UNLV and warned America of the coming increase in energy prices and taxes if the Democrats have their way.

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Malcolm Petrie (in cowboy hat) joins clean energy supporters outside the National Clean Energy Summit 2.0 in Las Vegas on Monday.

Shawn Moshos, a union carpenter and Ron Paul delegate to the Nevada state Republican Convention last year, said he was protesting policies that he believes will edge America toward socialism. “This is about controlling America’s prosperity, when we should be in charge of our prosperity,” he said. Recently passed House legislation that would limit carbon emissions by instituting a system for trading and selling emissions credits would destroy more jobs than it would create, he charged.

Reid understands as well as anyone that just as Democrats were once a flagging ship of losers, so they can be again if they don’t produce results.

At the afternoon town hall event, he praised his party for its legislative achievements this year but added, “Until we do something about health care and about energy, we are probably not going to have the pats on the back that are necessary.”

Necessary for reelection, that is.

Sun reporter Alexandra Berzon contributed to this story.

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